The Racist Undertone of the Dewey Decimal System

Forrest Evans
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December 8, 2020

Classification is at the heart of the work of a library. There are four major library classification groups that are widely updated and utilized - the United States commonly uses the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and the Library of Congress Classification (LC) to organize their books. Of these systems, the DDC, often referred to as the Dewey Decimal System, is the most commonly used in public and K-12 libraries. 

The DDC uses three-digit Arabic numerals for the ten main classes: computer science, information & general works; philosophy & psychology, religion; social sciences; language; science; technology; arts & recreation; literature; and history & geography. Within each class, the second and third digit of this three digit number identify the division and the section. 

For example, 500 represents science. 530 represents physics, and 531 represents classical mechanics. A decimal point with additional numerals can follow the third digit for further classification. The structural hierarchy of the system means that all topics outside of the ten main classes are part of the broader topics above them, and the notational hierarchy means that the longer the number is, the more subordinate it is (636.7, or dogs, is more subordinate than 636, animal husbandry).   

Both the DDC and LC classifications include a system of categories that allow an arrangement of objects/items by subject to allow for browsing. The DDC works well in smaller libraries, but it isn't specific enough for large, diverse collections so library professionals also utilize a controlled vocabulary to catalog library items. A controlled vocabulary is a thesaurus of terms applied to knowledge objects by cataloging librarians and used by library patrons to access materials in Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs).

It all seems pretty cool, right? Turns out the DDC’s nineteenth century origin is a reflection of inherent cultural bias which includes a heart of traditional Christian rhetoric, systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia. For example, the DDC section on religion starts at 200, but no other religion or practice of faith besides Christianity is covered until 290. There are thousands of religions in the world, yet merely ten numbers are reserved for their classification. 

The dark history of Melvil Dewey

New York native Melvil Dewey was obsessed with order, details, rules, and lists— a direct relation of his life-long obsession with the number 10 and his creation of the DDC. The perfectionist turned the New York State Library (NYSL) in Albany into an exemplary national institution during his tenure. While in Albany, Dewey created the first library for the blind, the first interlibrary loan program, and notably the first children’s library.

Given such accolades, many might wonder how Melvil Dewey accumulated a rap sheet of troubled behavior. Dewey’s legacy is often marred by a documented history of racism, discriminatory practices, anti-Semitism, and sexual misconduct. 

Dewey’s discriminatory practices include his notorious refusal to admit Black and Jewish Americans to his New York members-only resort, the Lake Placid Club, and a list of inappropriate sexual advances toward female colleagues and even his own daughter-in-law

Additionally, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College in 1887— where 90 percent of his students were female. It is rumored that in addition to submitting basic information for an application, Dewey required prospective female students to submit their bust sizes.

Accounts of Dewey’s problematic behaviors continued. In 1905, Dewey and several ALA members took a cruise to Alaska after an ALA conference. Following this fellowship, four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time.

His discriminatory practices seeped over into the decimal system. Early editions of the DDC classified LGBTQ+ Literature under psychology and medical disorders. Michelle Drumm’s Naming the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: A Look at How Gays and Lesbians are Classified in the Dewey Decimal Classification provides an additional outline of why and how the DDC has marginalized the LGBTQ+ community, up until the year 2000. 

Dewey’s system also classified work by Black writers under one of two numbers (325, colonization, or 326, slavery), regardless of subject, a process that was remedied by a new system pioneered by Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter. 

Because of a wave of criticism around Dewey’s practices, ALA stripped the founder from one of its top leadership honors, the Melvil Dewey Medal, in June of 2019.This move followed the ALA’s 2019 decision to change the name of its Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award following criticism over the Little House on the Prairie author’s portrayal of African and Native Americans. As ALA and similar organizations continue to make progressive steps toward an inclusive future,  they ultimately embrace Black, Indigenous and People of Color voices that were once not celebrated.  The ALA has yet to decide on a new name for the Dewey Medal.

The DDC’s restrictive structure, Christian guidance, and historical repressive practices created a prejudicial library system and professional practice that professional and library associations devote time to reworking year after year. Their hope is that they will ultimately be able to redirect a history of discrimination and move toward a more inclusive future.  


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